An enthusiastic supporter of the Millennium Development Goals, Rwanda was an early achiever of universal primary education and gender equity in schooling. Yet significant challenges still remain. By GEM Report

Background: Rwanda’s education system
Rwanda has been part of an impressive global record of achievements in improving access to education—and it has also been part of the worldwide struggle to ensure that children who are in school actually learn. Rwanda’s accountability practices and policies, in all their strengths and weaknesses, are a key piece in understanding this larger puzzle.
Challenges in education quality
An enthusiastic supporter of the Millennium Development Goals, Rwanda was an early achiever of universal primary education and gender equity in schooling. Yet significant challenges still remain. Why are 50% of grade 1 students, 26% of grade 2 students, and even 14% of grade 3 students reaching the end of the school year without being able to read even a single word in Kinyarwanda? On the other hand, what made it possible for the percentage of literate grade 1 and grade 2 students to increase by about 10% over the past few years?
In an immediate sense, these are questions about teacher practice and pedagogy, and perhaps about parental engagement and the availability of quality learning and teaching materials. But stepping back, we arrive at broader questions of policy, financing, formal and informal institutions, and accountability.
Defining accountability
The concept of accountability in Rwanda is influenced by English, French, and most importantly, Kinyarwanda—through the adaptation of two distinct families of concepts. The first of these emphasizes “responsibility” (inshingano, a term that can mean responsibility, role, or duty). Someone who is accountable has “fulfilled his or her responsibilities” appropriately (kuzuza inshingano ze), as defined by someone higher up in a hierarchy.
The second family of concepts that is currently most used in relation to “accountability” is derived from the verb “to vow, to promise” (guhiga). The related noun imihigo, of prominent importance in contemporary Rwanda was originally used in the sense of a vow to undertake an act of bravery in the context of competing with others (guhiganwa). Today it means a pledge or a promise regarding what will be accomplished by the responsible party. After one has made this pledge, one should “show what one has achieved” (guhigura). In this sense, Rwandan government and public discourse today promotes accountability as “the culture of setting goals and achieving them” (umuco wo guhiga no guhigura).
Neither of these, however, express the dimension of accountability that is really crucial for achieving Rwanda’s educational aspirations. That will require a redefinition of hierarchy—of “fulfilling one’s responsibilities” not only to those in charge, but most importantly to the people. Accountability in the Rwandan context needs to be re-thought as doing one’s best in service to those who most need your efforts—the children who are struggling to learn, and the parents who have aspirations for a better future.
Different approaches to accountability are followed in Rwandan education
In the case study I developed for the 2017/8 GEM Report, I examined four dimensions of accountability in Rwanda: top-down accountability structures and practices, bottom-up accountability, and horizontal accountability, as well as the cross-cutting influence of Rwanda’s Imihigo or performance contracts.
Top-down accountability consists of the laws, structures, and practices by which each level of the education system is held responsible for its actions by higher levels in the hierarchy. Bottom-up accountability is the means by which the general population can hold those in authority to account. Horizontal accountability comes about among institutions and actors that are not involved in a hierarchical relationship. Finally, there is imihigo a type of professional accountability, which takes the form of a performance management contract or a pledge by an official to achieve certain objectives over a fixed period.
Each of these dimensions has its strengths and weaknesses in Rwanda.
As for top-down accountability, education sector authorities, for example, find it difficult to hold school heads to account, since they serve under different administrative structures. School general assemblies exist as a concept, and function as a bottom-up accountability mechanism, but public knowledge of what constitutes a quality education is limited, as is the general population’s power to hold their schools and local leaders accountable.
Horizontal accountability has worked remarkably well in Rwanda but may wax and wane depending on particular government agency and civil society leadership from year to year.
Imihigo by its very nature has been shown to be effective as far as it provides a public benchmark to assess performance against stated objectives. It is not uncommon for leaders to resign in the face of a poor evaluation. In 2015, for example, the Mayors of four districts along with some key staff resigned following the Imihigo evaluation process. The case study cautions that imihigo pledges, risks being out of sync with real education priorities which or often overlooked by grander pledges more favorable to the public.
What is missing from all of this is a discussion of professionals in the education sector holding themselves accountable for serving the Rwandan population to the best of their ability. No amount of laws and institutions can change this—it is a question of instilling a new sense of ethical duty to others in public servants at all levels of the educational hierarchy.
2017/8 GEM Report recommendations for global governments and for Rwanda
Global :
Governments must make the right to education justiciable in national law, which is not the case in 45% of countries. The right to education is justiciable in national law.
Governments should be transparent about the strengths of weaknesses of education systems, opening policy processes to broad and meaningful consultation and publishing a regular education monitoring report.
Rwanda :
Rwanda produced a national education monitoring report in 2011.
Global :
Governments should develop credible and efficient regulations with associated sanctions for all education providers, public and private, that ensure non-discrimination and the quality of education.
Rwanda :
Rwanda has regulations on the maximum teachers to pupils in primary and secondary education in both public and private schools, as well as on health and safety and required teacher qualifications.
Global :
Governments should fulfil their commitment of spending at least 4% of GDP on education or allocating 15% of total government expenditure.
Rwanda :
Rwanda does not reach either of the two financing targets for education, spending 3.8% of GDP and 12.4% of public expenditure on education.

This blog is written by Catherine A Honeyman, Senior Youth Workforce Specialist at World Learning and visiting Lecturer, Duke Center for International Development at Duke University. Catherine is also the author of a case study on accountability and education in Rwanda commissioned for the 2017/8 GEM Report. The blog is part of a series showing that accountability in education is shaped by a country’s history and political, social, and cultural context.